Writers Picks: Food & Drink

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Best Secret Ingredients

Psst. You, sir. Over here. Yes, you. Step this way. Come a little closer. There, we're alone. Now then, can I interest you in a little magic dust? Wait, it's not what you're thinking. This is the good stuff. Homegrown even.

Look at this pinkish one. Know what this is? That's purple sauerkraut that's been dehydrated and turned into this intensely flavored seasoning. No, you don't sniff it. Sprinkle a little on your scrambled eggs or, better yet, put it atop a pan-fried steak or grilled fish. Delicious.

Or look at this one: charred eggplant powder. I'm thinking a sprinkle of this over your babaganouj would be extraordinary. Or how about this tarragon-caper powder? I like a little of this on top of deviled eggs. It's like a secret weapon. People have no idea where all that flavor is coming from.

I'd like to take credit for these, but this is the work of chef Perry Hoffmann and the good folks at Shed in Healdsburg. They've developed a whole line of the powders, seasoned salts and other kitchen pantry items. I'm fond of the green salt—bay leaves, thyme, parsley, rosemary and Jacobsen salt spread around the rim of a bloody Mary. It's a great way to take a little Sonoma County with you wherever you go.

While it doesn't fit inside my trench coat here, Shed also makes delicious pickled vegetables like carrots and chile peppers, savory shiitake mushrooms, eggplant conserve and even pickled kale. There's also a line of fruit preserves and shrubs. What's a shrub? It's made with very ripe fruit and herbs and spiked with vinegar to preserve it. They're great as a base for cocktails or a little sparkling water for a DIY soda. Just the thing after enjoying a rib-eye steak dusted with a little purple sauerkraut powder. 25 North St., Healdsburg. 707.431.7433.—S.H.

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Biggest Little Cheese Case

It's fromagerie just for three, and that's not counting the cow, the goat and the sheep. Four's a crowd in the tiny Bohemian Creamery perched on a ridge overlooking green pastures that stretch out to the Laguna de Santa Rosa in rural Sebastopol. But it's usually a patient and at times jovial crowd bunched up around a little cold case and studying a chalkboard menu of the day's colorful titled offerings at $11 or $12 per half-pound. It's a place where customers share samples and trade advice for pairing funky-rinded cheese with funky-nosed Pinot Noir. It's the kind of place one used to have to travel a long ways in either space or time to find. Well-curated and many curded as the cheese case at better markets may be, there's nothing quite like the little cheese case at Bohemian Creamery for variety and value from one single artisanal producer. Many a regular comes in for the pollen-laced pyramids of FlowerPower or the goat milk caramel-core Cowabunga; others savor the stench of the Bomb, washed in Russian River Brewing's Belgian-style ale. Boho Belle is made with jersey milk, Bo Peep with sheep; Twist & Shout mixes it up with both. Creamy but sliceable, Surf and Turf is dusted with toasted dulse seaweed, and don't forget the water buffalo cheese—there's even room in the biggest little cheese shop in the North Bay for the buffalo. 7380 Occidental Road, Sebastopol. bohemiancreamery.com.—J.K.

Oldest Winery in the Region That Predates Prohibition

Here's an easy question for a person of taste and learning such as yourself, a connoisseur of the fine wines of this region. Try your luck! Take a guess: What is the oldest continuously operated family-owned winery in wine country? What's that, young man? Robert Mondavi Winery is a fine winery, indeed, and a fine guess—if not even close by half. Charles Krug, ma'am? Clever indeed—owned by the Mondavi family, that's the oldest winery in Napa, having been founded in 1861 . . . but by a different family. Indeed, sir, Gundlach-Bundschu sports an even grayer beard than that, and their claim as "the oldest family-owned winery in California" is not entirely inaccurate, but does anyone recall a little hiccup called Prohibition? You, way in the back, speak up! Yes! Clinging to a hillside way up above Napa Valley, Nichelini Family Winery celebrates its 127th consecutive vintage. Why, they're so old, they've got a Roman wine press! Even more astonishing, Nichelini is owned and operated by a huge extended family—that cooperates! So what about all those other "oldest winery" claims? "It's all true, they aren't lying in any way," says Doug Patterson, current president of the Nichelinis. "They just have positioned it with a category that would favor them—and there's a lot of romance that goes back with the 'old' stuff." Remarkably, the winery survived Prohibition by selling wine for vinegar and grapes to the Chicago market, and, thanks to a miracle, their regular deliveries in the Bay Area never got interrupted: one family member had a permit for delivering sacramental wine to churches.

2950 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena. 707.963.0717.—J.K.

Best Gyro with a View

You'll wait longer for the gyro than any other lunch item at the popular and bustling 4th Street Market & Deli, and when its components are finally folded into a glory of dense, spicy meatiness, you'll pray for one of those three scant metal tables out front across from the new Old Courthouse Square. If you should luck out and score a table, it will be a long lunch and the view will never disappoint in its all-too-human glory of transit, full of "and to think I saw it on Fourth Street" moments, just like Seuss but with a rampant parade of wandering eyeballs, shaggy urban campers and three-legged cats on a leash. The construction on Courthouse Square is entertaining to behold, as you count the remaining trees and ponder redwood accountability and the advent of anti-homeless benches. 300 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.573.9832.—T.G.

DAWN HEUMANN
  • Dawn Heumann

Best Ode to the California Dream

Handline does many things and does them well. The restaurant, which was built around a former Foster's Freeze and retains some of its mid-century architectural design elements, offers best-in-class renditions of dishes that define California's West Coast: Mexican- and Italian-inspired seafood (fish tacos, tostadas, ceviche, cioppino) and classics like fresh shucked oysters, al pastor tacos (with excellent house-made tortillas) and burgers with great local beer and wine to match. Hardest of all to pull off—given its lack of an ocean view—is how Handline manages to capture the look and feel of coastal California: breezy, casual, light and fun. It's where you want to be with a cold beer on a warm day. 935 Gravenstein Ave., Sebastopol 707.827.3744.—S.H.

Best Brunch in the Middle of Nowhere

What makes a perfect brunch? Great dishes balancing sweet and salty? Hefty portions and a cozy feel? Green surroundings channeling serenity and well-being? Boon Fly Cafe, adjacent to the Carneros Inn off Highway 12 in Napa, features all of the above for its weekend brunch service, plus seriously delicious menu items that successfully marry classic dishes with fresh touches. It all starts with the bloody Mary, which arrives with a huge chunk of applewood smoked bacon and a celery salt rim. It's almost impossible to pass on the inventive flatbreads with toppings like salmon and fromage blanc, squash and smoked chicken. The classics—eggs Benedict, pancakes, BLTs, even the eggs in a hole—are all made with flair. For dessert, the fluffy doughnuts are unbeatable. Plus, there's the whole "in the middle of nowhere" charm. It's one thing to go for brunch at your local cafe, something else entirely to find yourself surrounded by greenery, consuming decadent dishes in the company of weekend wine tasters.4048 Sonoma Hwy.,Napa. 707.299.4900.—F.T.

Most Bubbly Beer

Can you name the most bubbly beer in the North Bay's burgeoning beer scene? But surely this is a philosophical poser, you protest—like how many angels can dance on a Consecration tap handle? Or is the answer something technical, like North Bay beers that are poured on nitro—because the bubbles are smaller? No, no—it's much simpler than all that, and it's also a trick question: it's the beer with bubblegum in it. Crooked Goat Brewing's Bazooka Joe was a one-off, one-keg beer that brewer Will Erickson made with a skillful blend of water, barley, hops and—did you see this coming?—Bazooka Joe bubblegum, resulting in a frothy brew with a Muscat-like aroma and the distinct "pop" of bubblegum on the nose. One of six owners of this fresh, new brewery, Erickson delights in adding berries, citrus, spices and orange blossom honey to the brewery's IPA, stout and wheat beer offerings. Who dares to drink these cherry tarted-up, fruity, sometimes literally bubblegum beers? Lots of young folks whose first experiences with beer weren't dominated by Bud-Miller-Coors. "Now, the 30-somethings," says Erickson, "they skipped that. They could care less about those beers." 120 Morris St. #120, Sebastopol.—J.K.

Best Up-and-Coming Foodie Town

With its posh hotels and boutique-lined boulevards, Healdsburg has long been the locus of Sonoma County's culinary scene. Upscale newcomer Single Thread restaurant joins an excellent lineup of restaurants that includes Shed, Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar, Campo Vida, Spoonbar, Mateo's, Persimmon, Dry Creek Kitchen, Chalkboard, Barndiva, Kinsmoke, Bravas Bar de Tapas and Valette. That's a lot of culinary firepower, but look out: Petaluma is coming in hot. While many of Healdsburg's high-end restaurants cater to well-heeled weekend visitors who are staying in those posh hotels, Petaluma's new restaurants are geared for locals. The latest and greatest is the Drawing Board, an eclectic restaurant that's as adept at slow-cooked meats as creative vegan cuisine. The Shuckery was an instant hit when it opened last year, and continues to pack them in with their sexy, seafood-centric menu. Newcomers Slamburger, Crocodile Restaurant and Quinua Cocina join stalwarts like Central Market and Thistle Meats, a first-rate butcher shop that features an always delicious sandwich of the day. Healdsburg's restaurant scene isn't going anywhere, but it's good to see Petaluma giving it some competition.—S.H.

Best and Rarest of All Wines from the Rarest of Grapes

There are cult wines, and there are highly allocated wines, but none is as rare as the rarest wine from the rarest grape in this bottle right here. Cult Cabernet it is certainly not—nor some supposedly smuggled clone of pedigreed Pinot Noir. Look at this bottle, see how it shines with its secret—look for the vines, hidden in the vineyards. "I like to tell of the time in 1986 when I was planting four acres of the very rare Charbono," says Calistoga grape grower Vince Tofanelli. "A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producer told me, 'Are you eff-ing nuts? Planting that dying breed in Cabernet country?' Well, 30 years later, our Tofanelli Charbono is on the wine list at French Laundry. And his Cabernet? It is not . . ." Cult, indeed, but not as rare as the wine Tofanelli makes for family and friends from 42 vines of Burger, a once-ubiquitous white that's fallen far, far from grace and does not even register above "0" on the Grape Crush Report's North Bay wine country tallies. But wait—even more exquisite are the Muscadelle, Palomino, Traminer and "Portagee Blue" vines that live in refugia, like Tofanelli's old blocks of Zinfandel, along with "the lone vine my grandmother used to call GeeGee's grape." A-ha—and the rarest bottle? (A flash, a puff of smoke.) Sorry, I don't see a bottle. Tofanelli Wines, 1001Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga. 707.942.6504.—J.K.

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Sweetest Addition to the Japanese-Resto Craze

It was a pretty good year for local restaurants, from Petaluma to St. Helena. New casual eateries and chef-owned establishments joined the already crowded dining scene. How do you stand out among this crowded field? Opening a top-notch Japanese emporium with a high-low theme is one way. Miminashi is Napa's newest contribution to Northern California's Japanese-restaurant boom of late. Chef and owner Curtis Di Fede, a co-founder of Napa's excellent Oenotri, has created a perfect blend of these two ends of the spectrum—comforting yet fresh, approachable yet sophisticated. The ceilings are high and the colors are calming. The open grill adds warmth, and the secluded booths are perfect for a private meeting. The diverse menu is respectful of Japanese classics, but has a sense of humor, too. The yakitori-heavy menu lists knee cartilage alongside pork belly, grilled leeks with ginger-cod mayo next to the shoyu ramen. And how about some soft-serve ice cream? With flavors like Asian pear and miso, topped with anything from caramelized white chocolate to black sesame, it's a sweet end to a perfect meal in a sweet new restaurant. 821 Coombs St., Napa. 707.254.9464.—F.T.